(A shortened version of this article was first published in Life, The Dominion Post. June 23, 2010)
Relaxing the Cheese Rules
It has been a long time coming but cheese lovers are in for a treat this weekend with a surprise tasting of a previously illegal selection of raw milk cheeses from Europe.
The fifteen varieties, which include the French Brie de Meaux, Italian Taleggio and Spanish Manchego, have been flown in ahead of new regulations that will free up the importation of unpasteurised cheese from the European Union.
Previously only a handful of raw milk cheeses – notably, Roquefort, Gruyere and Parmesan – have been allowed in to the country, but over the last two years officials from the EU and New Zealand have streamlined the import requirements and come up with an agreement that is all but signed off. The EU Delegation’s Chargé d’Affaires in Wellington, George Cunningham, says he is elated. “It means European raw milk cheeses will be available in shops and supermarkets with the backing of the New Zealand authorities, from July.”
The first consignment of cheese has been imported by Ludovic Avril of Le Marché Français, in Thorndon. He was granted an interim certificate to bring it in early – for tasting purposes only – in time for a recent international trade show in Auckland.
Most of his cheeses were devoured at the show but he has brought the remainder back to Wellington where they can be sampled (but not sold) at the Thorndon Quay store, and at a special tasting event to be held at the City Market this Sunday.
He says those who have already tried the cheese have been ecstatic. “You should have seen the faces of the people tasting this cheese at the show. I had French, Germans, Italians all saying, ‘It’s like being back home’. I had a Spanish woman who kept coming back to steal my Manchego.
“I had people from restaurants and delicatessens, all the local cheese makers – Fonterra, Puhoi, Kapiti, Over the Moon – and they all showed great interest. Their main comments were about the intensity and complexity of taste, and the character that comes through in each cheese.”
He says the call to import them came “out of the blue” from EU officials in Wellington who were keen to get raw milk cheese on to the European stand at the trade show. He has been buzzing ever since. “For this little company [Le Marché Français] to be given this opportunity, is just fantastic. The main task now is to keep the momentum going.”
It is clearly the highlight of what has been an unusual shift in career. It makes him laugh now, but when he came to New Zealand two years ago he was a banker, and never imagined he would be trading his briefcase for a job selling cheese.
“I had been 17 years in commercial banking, in France, the Middle East and the Pacific, but I arrived here as the banking crisis was really biting and there was absolutely nothing for me.”
He fell into his current sales manager job partly because he was French – a qualification that meant he would know all about cheese. In fact, he says, as a boy he grew up on Kraft – “My father was a diplomat and we lived in places like Burma.” His cheese knowledge came later and he says he is still learning.
Some of the cheeses he has imported, including an unusual ewe’s milk from Portugal, are new to him; others, like Saint-Nectaire, are old favourites. They can be viewed in their own cabinet at Le Marché Français, alongside a large chunk of cheddar from Somerset, some little Chabichou goat cheeses from Poitou and a gloriously pungent block of sticky Tallegio, stamped with its DOP credentials.
It has been interesting to compare the raw milk cheese with his standard range of pasteurised cheese, especially those of the same type. The unpasteurised Bleu d’Auvergne is light years ahead of its pasteurised cousin. Similarly the raw milk Brie de Meaux has a more complex flavour that can only be described as caramelised cabbage – a good thing in a cheese.
But it is also apparent that just because a cheese is made from raw milk, it is not necessarily better. Age can be just as important and raw milk cheeses made in an industrial way can still taste bland.
“The best are the artisan cheeses. They look like they’ve been matured in the right places; by that I mean caves, not a sterile environment. And when I eat them, I am in those caves, I can really taste them.”
So he’s not about to go back to banking? Not for a minute. “This is too much fun. I don’t regret my banking years but here I’m dealing with products people want. And this cheese business, it’s my baby. I would really hate to leave it.”